There’s a new frontline opening up in the US war on TikTok: college campuses.
The China-based app has already been banned on all federal government devices and on government devices in 31 states over data privacy concerns. Now restrictions are spreading to universities, with the University of Auburn, University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M and others all blocking the platform from school wifi networks in recent weeks.
Such bans are possible because school policies allow for the blocking of traffic to certain websites on campus wifi networks, measures that are typically reserved for harmful content and pornography. But those policies can also extend to specific apps, which has been done in the past with platforms like anonymous social media account Yik Yak.
Students at schools impacted by the bans have already taken to TikTok to complain, using popular memes and viral sounds to speak out. “This regime is ridiculous,” one user wrote. Others seem to be testing the limits of such policies: “I’m not allowed to post TikToks anymore, so let’s see if I can,” another user said. “Do you guys see this video?” (The policies only prevent access to TikTok on school networks and do not prevent posting to the app using cellular data.)
Some internet freedom advocates are also questioning the policies, calling them a misguided form of censorship. And others say such bans amount to pandering at a time when targeting Chinese technology is politically beneficial.
“This is an extension of the clumsy and extreme state actions we have seen taken against TikTok at state levels,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the non-profit media watchdog Media Matters for America. “The ban will be ineffective and does nothing except score political points and tax already flimsy infrastructure.”
The university bans come amid a cascade of actions against TikTok in recent months by lawmakers who say its China-based parent company could collect sensitive user data and censor content that goes against the demands of the Chinese Communist party. In late December, Congress passed a measure banning the platform on all federal government devices and similar bans have taken hold in more than 30 states in the past year, including Maryland and Georgia.
Many internet freedom advocates have highlighted the irony of states and schools purportedly combatting Chinese censorship by censoring these apps themselves.
“If it weren’t so alarming, it would be hilarious that US policy makers are trying to ‘be tough on China’ by acting exactly like the Chinese government,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of non-profit advocacy group Fight for the Future. “This is classic, state-backed Internet censorship.”
While bans on state and school devices are easier to implement, the university measures will be much more logistically difficult, experts say, since students can still easily get around them by using cellular data instead.
“This specific ban will likely count as barely an inconvenience for the students subject to it, and it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, both technically and ethically, to enforce students using TikTok on their own personal devices,” said Mike Parkin, senior technical engineer at cybersecurity firm Vulcan Cyber.
This could also lead to data networks being clogged on campuses, making student devices run more slowly and ineffectively. TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown criticized the ban, and warned there could be unintended consequences for students’ ability to share information and connect on campus.
“We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity in their states and are based on unfounded falsehoods about TikTok,” he said.
Most of these bans were enacted by schools that take government funds in states such as Texas where lawmakers are already waging political war on TikTok. This chapter marks just the latest example of global culture wars playing out on college campuses, Carusone said. Whether the counterculture movement of the 1960s, the Satanic panic of the 1980s, or allegations of liberal indoctrination on college campuses that began in the 1990s and continue today, young people are often used as pawns in larger political battles.
“College campuses can be an important frontline for how the rest of the culture and the political landscape deals with the actual problem,” he said. “Part of the reason political figures feel as though they can get away with these kinds of things is that they feel there won’t be political consequences, they think young people don’t have political power.”
Carusone said the battle will only ramp up in coming months, as we move into a presidential primary season during which being “tough on China” is seen as beneficial to both Democrats and Republicans.
“This is going to be a new focus where they’re all going to try to out-match each other,” he said. “It’s fertile ground, but TikTok is a red herring because such security concerns exist with all platforms. It ends up being a hyper-political issue that does not respond to actual threats.”
The bans distract from legitimate issues at hand, said Gillian Diebold of the Center for Data Innovation, including data privacy, app security and national security.
What would be more effective, she added, are measures like passing national data privacy legislation, or mandating transparency around what data is collected and enforcing end-to-end encryption on all social media apps.
“Targeting one single app is not going to make a dent in combatting these real issues,” she said. “These problems exist on every social media app out there, not just TikTok.”